Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Be afraid

What is your biggest fear?

Rejection? Death? The unknown? Loss? Is your main character facing down that fear?

Why not?

I don't know where I read or heard this first: Robert McKee, maybe, or quite possibly Donald Maass, in his Surrey master classes. The advice: Find your fear, and dump it on the page. Make your character deal with it in just the way you've always dreaded.

It's hard. I've done it, stared at the screen thinking "No, I can't talk about that. Even thinking about that scares me silly. How can I possibly live every day with that ache, that trickle of fear, for months?" You can. You should. It brings a vividness to your book that will otherwise be missing, that will become the vague, undefined lack earning you "I just didn't love this" comments by the bucketful.

However, if you truthfully portray your fear, and your characters react to it honestly, your book will resonate with readers. See, the trick is you're not the only one with that particular fear. If it's cathartic for you to deal with it on the page and come through the other side, it's cathartic for readers as well. They'll recognize the truth, connect with the powerful emotions. Rip through the pages to see if your MC will overcome it. Cheer for her when she does.

Like everybody, I've got several fears that underlie everything, that can rise to the surface with one word. One is rejection.

I'm not talking about book rejection—that's just a step in the process, in my opinion. I'm talking about when your best friend for years starts going cold. Stops calling you. Tells you one day, in front of all the people you most want to impress, that she can't believe she was ever friends with you in the first place, you're such a loser.

Yes, that happened to me.

Or when your boyfriend, or husband, starts spending long hours away from you. Turns away when you try to kiss him, or worse, pretends. But you can tell. It's different. It's over, you just haven't admitted it yet.

Or when you're a kid, and one of your parents leaves, for reasons that are perfectly valid from a grown-up's perspective, but to a kid just means they've failed somehow.

Jenna dealt with that fear. Natalie's facing it too, in a different way from a different source. But I think it's a common anxiety, and important. And very, very real to me.

Another one I didn't even realize until I wrote Jenna was the fear of losing control. I hadn't realized the true terror of that moment when—because of medical reasons, or because you're just a kid—decisions about your life are taken out of your hands, and you no longer have a choice. I did that to Jenna. Of course she took control back, but she had to lose it first. I had to, to understand it.

Don't hold back. Don't sugar-coat issues, to make them safe. Face your fears. Make your characters go through those particular layers of hell. And then, at the end, let them win.


Julie K said...

Dude. This is right on, and just what I needed to hear today.

You so rock.
Julie K

Susan Adrian said...


I needed to hear it too--that's why I wrote it down. {g}


Julianne Douglas said...

Great post, and so true! I think that's why my first page did so well in a recentcontest--it dealt with parents planning their son's funeral. Can you say fear with a capital F?
I guess the emotion came through and snagged the judge's attention.

I think that's also why I've not continued that book. Other than the easy excuse that it's not historical, I think I'm afraid to "go there."

Amy said...

Hi Susan,
I couldn't agree more. it's hard kicking my characters in the soft spot, but that's what I have to tell myself. "Kick them in their most vulnerable spot." Amazing how hard it is--I think because we _do_ read ourselves into a good story.

JUlianne--HOly mackeral! Terrifying. _That_ would get my attention, no doubt.


Cindy said...

Hi Suze:

My MC lost her son and husband in a car accident. The story takes place a year later, but it's based on my own worst case scenario, certainly. Losing the ones I love, and being alone.

>>she can't believe she was ever friends with you in the first place, you're such a loser<<
Gawd. Now there's a real peach. *hug* I had a boyfriend in high school do something like that. He brought everything from his house that was mine and threw it at me in the hall at lunchtime, item by item, while he listed my many faults. Everybody was there. Nobody moved or spoke until he was done, they all just...watched.

I wouldn't go back to being that age for anything.

Susan Adrian said...

I bet that IS part of the reason why that story bit was powerful. You touched on the ultimate fear. I'm hesitant to go to that particular place myself--at least from the parent's pov--but I do deal with that issue from a different perspective.

Susan Adrian said...

LOL! Kick your characters in the underbelly! I like it. I'd feel sorry for them, if it wasn't so oddly fun. :)

Susan Adrian said...


WOW on the boyfriend, the scumbag.

Get back. Use it!

Heidi the Hick said...

This is stunning. I have been struggling with this for months- knowing that I have to tackle The Big Scary but avoiding it.

I have friends and loved ones who tell me that I have to go for it, and that the topic that most scares a writer can be the most compelling to read. Well sure, but it's still hard to do.

You really nailed it- this is what makes it real! Thanks!

Susan Adrian said...


I feel very strongly about this, about putting your passion and fear in. I speak from experience. I have a novel under the bed that felt "distanced" to readers, that never quite broke through that barrier. I think you HAVE to.

Hope it helped!! Best of luck. Tackle the Big Scary full out. :)

Karen Mahoney said...

Great post - I know I'm a bit late in commenting! Just wanted to let you know this resonates with me, and I've been doing this very thing in my own writing. It's painful and scary, but adds something HUGE to my characters... I hope, so anyway! *g*

p.s. I really think you should consider cross-posting over on LJ... And, yanno, you could join Fangs, Fur and Fey when you get a book deal! ;)

Susan Adrian said...

Hi Karen. Glad it helped!!

As to LJ...should I? I admit, I don't really know how to cross-post (um, without copying and pasting it over). Are there enough people who won't click over to here?

I love FFF. Keep your fingers crossed. :)

Karen Mahoney said...

I guess you could just wait until you can join FFF... You'll need an LJ id then, anyway. ;)

Susan Adrian said...


Well, I do HAVE an LJ page (http://susanadrian.livejournal.com/)--it's just that it's blank except for the link over to here...

I appreciate your positive attitude about joining FFF!! :)